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In 2002, Colin Powell, an American statesman and retired four-star general in the United States Army, published one of his bestsellers: “The Powell Principles: 24 lessons from Colin Powell, a Legendary Leader.” The lessons are concise, clear, straightforward and very valuable to any Leader. If you have the opportunity to read this book, please do so. I am sure you will enjoy it as I did.

What are the 24 lessons? I am listing them here below so you get an idea of  what Powell is talking about. For this blog post, I am selecting 3 of them and share my opinion with you of how a Pragmatic Project Leader can best apply them. Here is the full list:

  1. Promote a clash of ideas
  2. Be prepared to piss people off
  3. Establish trust
  4. Walk the talk
  5. Pick the right people
  6. Listen
  7. Be vigilant in details
  8. Be a disorganizer
  9. Check your ego at the door
  10. Let change lead growth
  11. Seek consensus (but don’t be ruled by it)
  12. Fit no stereotypes
  13. Simplify
  14. Let situation dictate strategy
  15. Push the envelope
  16. Close with the enemy
  17. View People as partners
  18. Challenge the pros
  19. Don’t rely on charts and title
  20. Trust those in the trenches
  21. Make optimism a top priority
  22. Have fun in your command
  23. Strive for balance
  24. Prepare to be lonely

I can tell you that it wasn’t easy to select 3 lessons learned, as most of them are intriguing and worthwhile to address. Because I have talked about trust in one of my previous posts, I did not select ‘Establish Trust’, however my opinion is that this is the most prominent critical success factor of a project. What I did select is the following:

  1. Pick the right people
  2. Listen
  3. Let change lead growth

 

Pick the right people

 People aren’t just a piece of the puzzle, they are the puzzle. Or more accurately, they’re the solution to the puzzle – Colin Powell

Picking the right people for your project team is crucial. It is almost as important as establishing and maintaining trust. That’s a topic I have published a post about before. But how do you pick the right people as a practical project leader? That is not an easy task. Sometimes you come in when the selection has been completed and people have been assigned to the project. Making changes at that point in time is hard to do. In that case, do a thorough assessment and notify the Executive of potential skill gaps and risks you have identified. Most likely the Executive assembled the team, or at least approved it. Escalating your concerns to the Executive in a structured and informative manner is all you can do. After that: start rowing with the team you have! If you do have the option to build your team from scratch, think about the following.

Understand the complexities of the solution, the organization, the culture and the business context before you start with defining the required skill set and mix you need in order to deliver. If the initiative that you are leading has a substantial business transformation component, you want to make sure that the people you select are aligned with the vision of the end state that you are going to move towards. They must believe in the ‘product’ that the project is about to deliver. If you don’t have that certainty, you are probably going to feel pretty lonely soon and struggle with manifesting the change. As orchestrator you want people in your team that want and can sing from the same song sheet. They must be able to identify themselves with the notes and the lyrics.

How do you make sure that you are looking for the right skills? If you don’t know that for sure that’s perfectly fine, you just need to consult an expert in those particular areas and ask for input. Executives expect you to assemble the right team, not to have deep expertise in all aspects. Feel good when you don’t know as long as you are aware of it. Once you have defined the right skill set, there is one other step to take before you can start the recruitment process. You want to attract people that have the right attitude, values and beliefs. Ultimately, we all know that any team performs and delivers when people work well together. It sounds simple and it truly is. As Pragmatic Project Leader you want to work with people that are intelligent, humble and hungry. It is not only about knowledge and experience, it is also about personality. Teams perform well when personalities match. Too often I see that selections are made on the candidates resume and much less on the fit with the team. Intelligence and being humble need no further clarification. Being hungry does. What does that mean? People who have a motivated interest in joining your project and want to take the extra mile to deliver, are the ones who are hungry and are the ones you want to have in your team. They will become your front runners. When the going gets tough, they will step up and safe your bacon. Consider selecting a candidate who has less knowledge and experience, but who is humble and hungry, because that’s something that you cannot change and you have to live with that.

Once you have selected your team players, the journey begins.  Your responsibility is shifting towards managing the team and coaching each of the players such that their individual talents grow and their output and contribution to the project gets optimized. In every project that I have been part of, the team is going through ups and downs, through stages of development. As Pragmatic Project Leader you must be aware of that team dynamic and your role is to manage the relationships between the players. It is your moral obligation to grow people in their careers. That is often one of the motivations why people want to join your project.

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman came up with the memorable phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” in his 1965 article, “Development Sequence in Small Groups.” He used it to describe the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, “adjourning.” If you aren’t familiar with that concept, I recommend to read it. In my future posts about team performance, I will come back on it

Listen

Good listening begets good listening. Ideas get exchanged faster and more reliable – Colin Powell

Or like Stephen Covey said: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As practical project leader you are in a lot of meetings, conference calls, conversations and other forms of gatherings, where a lot of information is being exchanged each and every day.

Now, how often are you in a meeting where you notice that people are simply not listening, and over time topics circle back over and over again? As practical project leader you want to intervene when that happens. The best way to do that is to listen actively, thoroughly grasp the subject and speak up at the right moment. When is that? When your gut tells you to. When you speak up paraphrase what you have been listening to and ask for confirmation from the people participating in the discussion. Make it an inclusive discussion by inviting people to speak up who have been quiet before. You want to do that with people who have a serious stake in the outcome of the meeting. It is your responsibility as Pragmatic Project Leader that the right people participate, listen, speak up and make timely decisions.

There are in my mind two very effective ways to obtain valuable information that benefits the project by putting on your listening hat. The first one that I am a strong advocate of is what is often called ‘management by walking around.’ You are engaging with individuals or group of individuals on the project floor in an informal way and asks open questions about work and life. These meetings can have positive side effects as well like team motivation, team integration and collaboration. The second one that I find effective and often have are 1:1 coaching sessions, where you help improve the talented individual by making a connection between performance, contribution to the project, career development and aspirations in life. Coaching can become a fascinating aspect of practical project leadership. If you want to read more about coaching, search for books and/or articles about the GROW model.

Let change lead growth

Leaders need to encourage a philosophy in which change becomes equivalent to growth and growth becomes equivalent to satisfaction – Colin Powell

It is imperative that if you want to achieve your dreams you must change. Think.Change.Achieve is the core concept of PM Consult. Organizational change management is a key component of our advisory services. The capability to manifest ‘Change’ through an IT business transformation project is as important as expertise of business process and technology design and delivery (the solution). But why do organizations not treat it as such when they initiate new projects?

Oftentimes there is a lot of talk about organizational change management, but it hardly translates in concrete, consistent action plans that leadership follows through. There is no shortage of opinions of what must change, who must change by when and what happens if change does not occur. Having said all of that, it seems that organizations  have little experience of how you make ‘Change’ happen. Not giving ‘Change’ the right priority is really too bad and unnecessary. One of the symptoms of a failing organizational change management team is that they only perform ‘communication activities’, whereas the core focus should be on alignment, commitment, transformation and implementation.

If you read literature about why projects fail, the organization’s inability to change is over and over again mentioned as a root cause. I think that one of the reasons why this happens is that organizations do not value change management activities as they should, because it is hard to make its effectiveness tangible. It is not an easy task to find a correlation between for example ‘executive alignment sessions’ and the organization materializing the vision of the end state.

There is a saying “without great risk, no great reward”. Organizations that want to move to a new, promising future end state must change and therefore intrinsically must take risk.  And that is exactly where the problem lies. Typically organizations are risk averse and only want to pursue activities that can be planned in detail and tightly managed.  Organizational change management does not fall in that category. On the contrary, business process and technology design and delivery, the more tangible aspects of an IT business transformation, do. Organizational change management must always be ahead of the curve, meaning it starts ahead of business process and technology design and delivery.

How can we change this situation? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make the business case! An investment in change multiplies investments in business process and technology and therefore overall business value of the initiative
  2. Formulate a transparent, action oriented change management plan. Sell that plan, get alignment and commitment
  3. Recruit adequately skilled organizational change management experts on your project and follow their advice
  4. Assign a change leader who is comfortable to take great risk when necessary. Actively manage risks in favour of achieving the goals and future end state. Ideally the visionary leader that I talked about in one of my previous posts is that change leader
  5. Make the execution of the change management plan a productive journey with meaningful deliverables that contribute to the success of the project. Make it an instrumental part of project status meetings and Executive briefings

Change is fun. That is the exciting part of IT business transformation projects. Embrace and it pays off.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

 

 

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When trust goes up, speed will also go up and cost will go down – Stephen M.R Covey

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Almost all of the reading material that I have seen in my career about what drives a project to success are addressing the technical aspects of project management. They speak about the importance of managing scope, or how earned value management can keep your project cost under control, or how critical it is to maintain a multi-level schedule throughout the project, or the do’s and don’ts of vendor management. They speak about how risk management keeps you on track, or how implementation methodologies like the waterfall or scrum sprint approach deliver value faster. The list goes on and on. But what you hardly read about is what I call the hidden secret to project success and that is TRUST.

I dare to say that over the years we have created a wealth of knowledge and experience about the application of technical project management methods and tools. The last decade, a lot of people qualified and certified themselves as project management professional (for example PMP). Overall, that is and has been a great step forward in getting better in managing business initiatives that drive change. But as always, there is opportunity to do more and to do better. Where in my mind we can significantly improve is on the application of softer leadership skills and the understanding of the mechanics of success drivers that are part of an organizations DNA as trust is. It is quite obvious that you will get the most thriving and performing project team when trust is high.

A few years ago I read the book ‘The Speed of Trust’ written by Stephen M.R. Covey (see www.myspeedoftrust.com). The book intrigued me and opened my eyes on aspects of leadership that can be much more influential on the project outcome than the technical aspects only. Shortly after reading it I had the pleasure to meet Covey in a workshop, where he, by using very interesting and practical examples, clarified the key message of his book: “When trust goes up, speed will also go up and cost will go down.”

What Covey says is that simply put, trust means confidence, and the opposite of trust, or distrust, is called suspicion. Covey gives an example for communication, which we all know is a critical success factor in any organization: In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.

He also speaks about the economic aspect of trust by saying that trust always affects two outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down. He mentions that a movement in trust can either be a tax or a dividend. By demonstrating trustworthy behaviour, people, teams and organizations, earn dividend and put that in a ‘trust bank account’. In the opposite case when trust goes down, one gets taxed resulting in a draw from the account. Covey basically says that whether trust is high or low, it is a hidden driver of organizational success:

Strategy x Execution = Succes

(Strategy x Execution) x Trust = Success

A company can have an excellent strategy and a strong ability to execute; but the net result can be torpedoed by a low-trust tax or multiplied by a high-trust dividend.

For more details about the the importance of trust and how you can influence that, I happily refer to Covey’s book.

How do you recognize low-trust affecting your project?

First thing is that you need to be aware of the trust levels in your project environment. When you are aware of it, you are able to influence and potentially change it with help from executive leadership. Recognize that trust is part of relationships at individual, team, organizational and vendor level.

Second thing is that you want to observe a number of dynamics:

  1. Silo-ed behaviour of individuals, teams, departments or between client and vendor teams, is often a good indicator of a low trust culture. The impact is that the execution of tasks take more time than planned, causing schedule changes and budget overruns. It can go as far as deliverables not being delivered at all, or delivered but not with the expected quality and therefore not providing the business value. You can see the ripple effect there. As project manager, you want to continuously report on aspects that impact trust to the executive leadership. Start with doing that verbally with examples and solutions. If there is limited change over time, follow the escalation path to the executive sponsor. Keep bringing it up. Aside from the reporting part, do everything you can to influence the trust factor yourself. That often applies first to individuals in your project team as well as the vendor
  2. Ineffective decision making is one of the major, perhaps the biggest counter productive habits of project, client and vendor leadership. Among other aspects (getting people together, prepare documentation, set priority, etc) that can fairly easily be fixed, a low trust culture is the root cause of it. It is very tricky for project managers to get the right decision made at the right time with the right audience, such that once a decision has been made, it won’t circle back another time and come up as a surprise. As practical project manager you want to be very clear, crisp and concise in the decisions that must be made in order to hit your timelines. Direct communication must be a key aspect of your leadership style. What I mean is that you are able to clarify what the decision is about and what the impact is to the project and business if it is not made on-time. Report the status of the key decision to the executive leadership on a weekly basis by maintaing a log. Leverage your informal network to influence the decision making as required
  3. When ineffective communication is happening while all the means are available, it is a clear indication of a trust issue. How many times have you walked out of a meeting room where hindsight you had a completely different understanding of the outcome than the other party? A practical measure to deal with in this situation is to document the meeting real-time with all participants present. Every time you document an action item, issue, risk or decision make sure you do that in front of the participants. You can do that by projecting the document on the wall such that all participants can see what you write and document, and/or by sharing your desktop if there are participants remote available.

These 3 items are project trust indicators that you want to be aware of all the time. Items 2 and 3 are easier to deal with and have practical measures that you can immediately apply. The other item is much harder to influence and change at it often sits deep in the footprint and DNA of the organization. You definitely need executive leadership support there to install an organizational change.

I want to reiterate that it is key for a practical project manager to be aware of the impact of trust on your project. It can impact any aspect, for example: scope, schedule, budget, risk and issue management, decision making, communication, team performance, vendor performance, sustainment, etc. so be on top of it from day one.

Trust is like water, it creeps into every corner and if you don’t manage it well, it can be destructive. If you do manage it well, it can bloom your organization, project, team members, performance and output. Trust is a key differentiator in the market place.

I hope you are appreciating my posts. Feel free to comment as I do want to understand what can be improved, or what you want me to write about.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

 

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First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination – Napoleon Hill

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In the introduction post I mentioned the   ‘THINK – CHANGE – ACHIEVE concept’ that I developed and which will be a core element of my blog.  A core skill of the pragmatic project leader is to simplify things without losing sight of reality and quality. Simplicity leads to a better and broader understanding of the WHAT, and therefore to a higher project success rate.

Many organizations today seem to have well educated staff and therefore tremendous brainpower. At times much more than needed. At times not very well utilized.  Yet I see many organizations struggling with defining WHAT they really want to achieve in projects. As a consequence organizations tend to make things much more complex than necessary and therefore struggle to manifest ideas and business needs. In my mind, you must THINK and CHANGE, before you can ACHIEVE and reach your full potential. What I mean to say is that if you want to attract a business need, the organization must THINK intensively about WHAT that business need is without complicating it. Once that has been defined, well documented and communicated, the next step is to invoke a CHANGE process where key stakeholders commit and align to the desired end state and buy into a transformation. In my future blog posts I will speak more in detail about definition, documentation and communication of the WHAT.

These first two steps, THINK and CHANGE, must be consciously followed and can take a lot of time to complete. This is a period where the executive business leader needs to ensure that the visionary leader and pragmatic project leader collaborate and work effectively together. It is time well spent, because it makes the final step of the project called ACHIEVE much easier. Also the momentum is being created for the team to start delivering the solution. When leaders can demonstrate alignment on the outcome and can clearly articulate the vision of the end state and the path towards it, team motivation gets a boost and all signs to make it happen go green.

More about THINK, CHANGE and ACHIEVE to follow.

Bas de Baat

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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 Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with Vision is making a positive difference – Joel Barker

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Leading an IT business transformation project is like coaching a premier division sports team. The team won’t perform if you leave the coaching to the “opponent” (the Vendor), or if you put a coach in place that does not fully grasp the rules of the game. The coach needs to understand the dynamics and have different plays (practical measures) in his mind to win.

In order to be the project leader the organization needs, you must have an excellent skill set that goes above and beyond experience with project methods, tools and standards. You need to be able to deal with many variables at the same time.

My posts are going to address those skills, and explains that a project leader must be able to instantly apply practical measures to stay or get back on track for delivering a successful project; one that provides value the business is expecting. In other words, in today’s world, the project leader must be a – pragmatic project leader -.

When organizations initiate projects, they are reasonably successful in describing the desired outcome, high-level business requirements, solution direction, scope, budget and timeline. But that is not enough these days, especially not when solutions become more and more integrative of nature. And trust me they can be very complex, especially with the emerging cloud, big data and mobile technologies, which are for most organizations still unknown territories.

What is required instead is a detailed description of what the organization wants to achieve before you start any solution design activity. I will explain in subsequent posts what that looks like in terms of deliverables. It is part of the “Think Change Achieve concept”. There are situations, where the level of detail cannot be defined at the start. Good examples are business intelligence projects, where reports, dashboards and other solutions are best developed in iterations. When that occurs, the pragmatic project leader must follow an agile project management strategy and plan the delivery of a detailed description of what the organization wants to achieve at the beginning of each cycle.

I have been in situations where the visionary leader asked a software vendor to demonstrate functionality in order to shape the vision of the desired end state and to start drafting business requirements. That’s like putting the cart in front of the horse. “Can you please tell me what your product can do? I need that to define what I want”. Well, you know what will happen when you do that: not much. Very likely, the vendor will continue to demonstrate functionality along the way and cause the project to drift. The organizations ability to judge what is right or wrong, or better what adds value or not, is very limited in those situations, because the dependency on the vendor is high, too high.

The role of the pragmatic project leader is to balance and complement the visionary leader by steering him through the process of defining the vision, to ultimately a description of detailed business requirements and a scope statement. He needs to have the ability to quickly grasp the business needs and translate that in structured project activities that result in a meaningful write up and visualization of the WHAT.

Organizations should appoint the visionary and pragmatic project leader before a project gets initiated. Ideally at the same time. The visionary leader (from the business) has a good understanding of the desired end state or the WHAT, and the pragmatic project leader (from IT) of the HOW and WHEN to get there. To set them both up for success, the visionary leader and pragmatic project leader must report to the same executive business leader.

How that can work best, I will write about in a post about project governance structures.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion – Jack Welch

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When people ask me what I do for work, I gladly tell them that I lead ‘IT business transformation projects’ that have the intent to deliver solutions to increase customer service levels, or to improve operational excellence, achieve cost efficiencies, or to provide a platform for future growth. Sometimes it is a combination. These kinds of projects typically have a significant impact on people, process and technology at the same time.

In most of these projects, the organization is capable of defining a vision of the end state, high level business requirements and some major business benefits, but is struggling with clarifying and communicating the underlying details to the level it is needed. In other words, organizations are often wrestling with clearly articulating what it wants, what the required change is, how it can be achieved, and in what the time line. This may have many different consequences, ranging from realizing fewer benefits than expected, to struggling with stabilizing the deployed solution, or to costly overruns and attempts to survive and stay in business after a troubled project implementation.

McKinsey and the University of Oxford found that “on average, large IT software projects with budgets larger than $15 M, run 66 percent over budget and 33 percent over time, while delivering 17 percent less value than predicted. Most companies survive the pain of cost and schedule overruns. However, 17 percent of IT projects go so bad that they can threaten the very existence of the company.” These findings are consistent across industries and were published in 2012. The researchers indicate that project performance can be improved when organizations focus more on managing strategy and stakeholders, securing talent, building excellent teams, and excelling at core project management practices.

Think about these findings for a minute. If you internalize them, it appears to me that leading IT business transformation projects is very much like playing a game on a pinball machine, where there are a lot of variables to keep an eye on. The player (project leader) purchases (budget) a number of balls (scope), and triggers them by using a plunger (kick off) into the playfield. Once the iron ball starts rolling, there are many targets to hit (deliverables) and points to score to demonstrate performance (benefits). Flippers (resources) are being used to continuously maneuver the ball across the playfield (context). At times these flippers cause the iron ball to hit an object that lights up or makes a sound (team motivation). If you do well, the machine (stakeholders) gives you free iron balls (scope change) to deliver an even higher score. If you don’t do well, the iron ball quickly finds its way down to the drain (issues and risks) and at a certain point the machine (stakeholders) tells you it is game-over. The player needs to be multi-skilled to play (deliver) a successful game. He needs to be able to keep the ball moving (plan) at a certain speed (schedule) and in a certain direction (critical path). Sometimes the iron ball rolls into a hole or saucer (delay) and the player needs to be creative (re plan) to get it back on track. Bumps by the player (escalation) against the machine are needed at times to influence the behavior of the iron ball (decisiveness). Real-time, practical answers are needed to keep the iron ball moving from target to target (commitment and alignment), and to by-pass bumpers that resist (organizational change) it from rolling in the intended direction (vision).

The reason why I make this analogy is to create the awareness and mindset at the executive level, that adequate project leadership is crucial to deliver a successful business initiative.

The next post is about what that project leadership is about. Stay tuned!

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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In today’s world, with increasing levels of complexity on all fronts, a project leader needs to stretch his creativity and come up with practical measures to drive enteprise wide IT business transformation projects successfully to the finish line. My posts are going to address a number of those ‘Must have’ practical measures.

More specific, they will speak about topics like:

  1. Project leadership
  2. Concept THINK – CHANGE – ACHIEVE®
  3. Connecting the dots
  4. Talk real
  5. Trust
  6. Team building
  7. Executive commitment and alignment
  8. Tuning the knobs
  9. Vendor management
  10. Implementation strategy

My intent is to collect all the posts and publish them in a book format at a certain point in time. With that publication I imagine that other professionals use it to their benefit, complementary to the more formal and methodology driven books about project management. With every post, there is an opportunity to give comments. Please feel free to provide comments to me that can make subsequent posts, and ultimately the book publication only better. Happy reading.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©